South Korea rides the K-wave to reclaim its spot in the top 20 for the first time since 2015 with improved performances in Engagement and Culture. In particular, South Koera has leverage the Hallyu phenomenon to great effect. Following K-pop boyband BTS’ historic win at the Billboard Music Awards 2017, the Korean Tourism Organisation engaged BTS to release a song to promote Seoul, and its official website crashed under the weight of visitor traffic. Tourism in South Korea also received a boost from the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, perhaps South Korea’s greatest, and most successful display of cultural and sport diplomacy yet. The 2018 Winter Olympics saw North Korea and South Korea march under a united flag in a symbolic opening ceremony, easing tensions and paving the way for possible denuclearisation. Following a momentous handshake between South Korean President Moon Jae In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un; the historic Trump-Kim summit; and more recently North and South Korea’s agreement to form combined teams at the Asian Games, we are seeing unprecedented positive progress in North and South Korean relations. This has renewed hope in South Korea’s political leadership, and President Moon’s ability to bring about diplomatic outcomes, and we see an improvement in trust in South Korea’s approach to global affairs in the polling. However, South Korea continues to perform relatively poorly in the remaining polling categories. South Korea’s ranking slipped in the Enterprise sub-index this year, though it holds strong in Digital. As the world starts to pay closer attention to the Korean peninsula, it will be critical for South Korea to increase public diplomacy efforts and shape a distinct national brand for global audiences.
Digital and Enterprise remain South Korea’s greatest strengths, largely due to its state-of-the-art digital infrastructure and impressive performances in innovation and R&D, outperforming all countries in the number of global patents filed relative to the size of its economy. Culture, however, is becoming an increasingly important source of soft power in South Korea. The South Korean entertainment industry continues to boom globally, earning it worldwide recognition, and the country posts strong scores in sports and tourism metrics.
South Korea continues to perform relatively poorly in the polling, and slips one place in the Government sub-index to 22nd. Last year, we attributed its poor polling performance to a likely lack of understanding around the North-South divide and its association with nuclear weapons. However, President Moon Jae-in has been instrumental in advancing progress on North Korean denuclearisation. Following a high-profile Trump-Kim summit, it will be interesting to see if President Moon can indeed herald an era of rapprochement with North Korea, and how this will play out in the polling.
It is worth noting South Korea’s fall in the Enterprise sub-index. South Korea must leverage its stellar digital infrastructure and technology products, and continue to invest in R&D in order to remain a competitive, innovation hub in Asia. While progress with North Korea bodes well for South Korea, the fragility of its relations may make South Korea vulnerable to swings in public opinion. As such, South Korea should invest in extensive public diplomacy efforts to promote soft power assets such as culture and technology, and ultimately shape a more complete narrative for international audiences.